Every year at Christmastime, we’re greeted by the same image: a lily-white, bearded man in a red suit. But the Santa at my house looks a bit different.
Our family hosts the annual Christmas party for our local Sri Lankan American community. My mom spends a week cooking. I spend hours a day writing Christmas cards. And then, when the day comes, we fish a bright red Santa suit out of storage and hand it to an uncle, who transforms into our Sri Lankan Santa before the kids scramble to the tree.
In a world where white is always the default, our Santa defies this status quo and gives the children in our community a rare opportunity to see a Santa that looks like them. Seeing their joy as they run up to a Santa who is part of their community, who sings our Sri Lankan songs and eats our food at our Christmas table, is always the best part of the holidays.
My name is Christine Fernando, and I’m a News Now reporter at USA TODAY, where I report breaking and trending news, as well as stories focusing on race and communities of color. I’d like to welcome you to this week’s “This Is America,” a newsletter about race, identity and how they shape our lives.
But first: Race and justice news we are reading
Important stories of the past week, from USA TODAY and other news sources.
‘Even our mythical creatures can reflect diversity…’
More than 75% of Santas are white, according to the 2021 version of an annual “Red Suit Survey” by National Santa and researchers from the University of Tennessee, Northern Illinois University and Oregon State University. Out of 376 Santas, four were Hispanic or Latino, four were Native American, two were Black and none were Asian. Almost 19% of Santas surveyed did not provide their race.
While most Americans see white Santas in malls, white angels on their trees, and white nativity scenes propped up at church, others have been doing the work to give Santa a long overdue makeover and to help move toward a future where even our mythical characters can reflect the diversity of our communities.
When he worked as a photographer for a Santa at a local mall, Stafford Braxton, CEO and head elf at Santas Just Like Me, would always get questions about when they would get a Black Santa. The mall’s management didn’t seem interested in making that a reality.
“I realized this was something I may have to just do on my own,” he said.
For Braxton, it was “glaringly obvious” that Black families were absent in portrayals of Christmas in the media. Instead, many representatives of Black communities are based on negative stereotypes, he said.
“And our children grew up seeing that,” Braxton said. “So we have to be intentional in putting positive images in front of that child to show them the reality. I wanted to show Black Santa as a positive image in the Black community.”
By connecting families with Santas of color, Braxton said he hopes to boost children’s self-image and expand the diversity we see around Christmas.
Jihan Woods, founder of the app Find Black Santa, created it in 2018 because she couldn’t find a Black Santa for her sons.
“I searched everywhere to find a Black Santa for my boys and had no luck,” she said.
Now, she said her mission is to “provide families with access to positive cultural imagery, diversify the meaning of Christmas and spread joy each holiday season.”
“Having a Black Santa creates an opportunity for parents and caregivers to resist the status quo,” she added.
With progress comes backlash, but we’re getting there
Despite a dearth in representation in the past, Woods is seeing progress. Over the years, she’s seen more Black Santas in malls or featured in merchandise, gift wrapping and commercials than ever before.
But with progress comes backlash.
In 2013, former Fox News host Megyn Kelly sparked a heated debate after she declared “Santa just is white.” The same week, a New Mexico high school teacher faced disciplinary action for telling a Black student who dressed up as Santa, “Don’t you know Santa Claus is white?”
Years later, in 2016, a Black Santa came to Minnesota’s Mall of America for the first time ever. And unsurprisingly, racists freaked out and spewed hate online. More recently, a Black family in Arkansas received an angry, anonymous note last year demanding they take down their Black Santa display, though their neighbors responded by putting up their own Black Santas.
Despite these reactions, St. Nicholas, who was born around 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey, wasn’t the white-skinned, Eurocentric depiction many of us may assume he was.
Still, as children of color are inundated with one representation of what Santa looks like, their reaction to a non-white Santa may reflect the whiteness around them.
There have been years when I’ll introduce a child in our community to our brown Santa, and they’ll tell me “That’s not Santa” because he doesn’t look like the Santa they are used to seeing. Even with our best efforts, it’s easy for children to reject the notion that Santa can look like them because that’s what they’ve been taught.
Braxton, from Santas Just Like Me, said he’s had similar conversations with children.
“We get kids who straight-up tell us that Santa’s not Black,” he said. “Then we explain to them that Santa has the ability to become all things to all people.”
Patrick Moss, aka Santa Pat at the Santa Experience in Mall of America, said he too sees children who doubt he’s “the real thing.”
“I simply smile then tug at my natural beard with a wink,” he said.
Recreating the magic of Santa – for everyone
The magic of Santas of color isn’t just for the children. It’s also for the adults who never had a Santa who looked like them.
Growing up, the only Santas I ever saw were white — until we started our Sri Lankan Santa tradition about a decade ago. A childhood without a non-white Santa made it even more special to me to help bring a Santa of color to children in my community.
Braxton tells the story of a grandmother who saw her grandchild’s photos with a Black Santa in 2019. The next day, she showed up to the venue with tears in her eyes. At 73 years old, she had never seen a Black Santa. Braxton took her picture with Santa for free.
“I knew that at this moment right now, this is where I’m supposed to be in front of this woman who is in tears experiencing something she had never had the opportunity to ever in her life,” he said.
That’s the power of Santa — if we’re conscious of who we portray him to be.
“There’s room enough in the heart of Christmas for all cultures, all communities,” Braxton said. “Everyone deserves a Santa they can identify with.”
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Source: GANNETT Syndication Service